No 355 Posted by fw, December 6, 2011
Back on September 11, 2011, I posted Part 1 of what was intended to be a multi-part series on what could be learned about building a contemporary social movement by studying past movements. I chose the African-American Civil Rights Movement as my model past movement. As my documentary source, I selected Howard Zinn’s Chapter 6 – “Or Does it Explode” – from his book, The Twentieth Century: A People’s History (2003). (Howard Zinn (Aug 24, 1922 – Jan 27, 2010) was an American historian and political activist).
It occurred to me that a review of past social movements might inform the cause of various contemporary leftist groups who aspire to build social movements as a way to counterbalance the power of right-wing political, corporate and media elites. The showstopper, however, was that left-wing activists seemed to be at a loss to know how to translate their ambitious words into effective movement-building deeds.
In my first post, I reviewed the opening few pages of Zinn’s Chapter 6, selecting passages that reflected the stirrings in the 1920s-30s of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
Here is a summary of Part 1′s teachings which might inform today’s movement-building activists –
- Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.
- Be prepared for a long struggle
- In strategic development planning, be ever-mindful of the significance of overarching social, economic and political context.
- Don’t discount the importance of creative dissent in building a movement – prose and poetry, music, theatre, photos, documentary video, signs and posters, archival record, blog/website etc. — for it is in creative imaginings of those bearing witness to injustice that gives emotional and spiritual meaning to the historical moment.
- Never underestimate the “power of one”. The Angelo Herndon story illustrates the power of one, especially one, who, in the face of oppression, summoned up the courage of his convictions and was prepared, willing and able to take a stand in a leadership role.
- Social movements are defined by collective action. Don’t overlook the importance of building alliances and collectives, especially at the neighbourhood level.
- Serve the needs of the oppressed, which, in Herndon’s case, were those needing rent relief.
- Hold public demonstrations to get the attention of local politicians.
TURNING TO THIS POST, PART 2 and following the same process as in Part 1, here are selected passages, and teachings, from Zinn’s Chapter 6, covering the period from the 1940s through the early ’50s (pages 188-191).
The black militant mood, flashing here and there in the thirties, was reduced to a subsurface simmering during World War 11, when the nation on the one hand denounced racism, and on the other hand maintained segregation in the armed forces and kept blacks in low-paying jobs. When the war ended, a new element entered the racial balance in the United States – the enormous unprecedented upsurge of black and yellow people in Africa and Asia. (p. 188)
Action on the race question was needed, not just to calm a black population at home emboldened by war promises, frustrated by the basic sameness of their condition. It was needed to present to the world a United States that could counter the continuous Communist thrust at the most flagrant failure of American society – the race question. (p. 189)
President Harry Truman, in late 1946, appointed a Committee on Civil Rights, which recommended that the Civil Rights section of the Department of Justice be expanded, that there be a permanent Commission on Civil Rights, that Congress pass laws against lynching and to stop voting discrimination, and suggested new laws to end racial discrimination in jobs. (p. 189)
Truman’s Committee was blunt about its motivation in making these recommendations, Yes, it said, there was “moral reason” a matter of conscience. But there was also an “economic reason” – discrimination was costly to the country, wasteful of its talent. And perhaps most important, there was an international reason:
Our position in the post-war world is so vital to the future that our smallest actions have far-reaching effects. . . . We cannot escape the fact that our civil rights record has been an issue in world politics. The world’s press and radio are full of it. . . . Those with competing philosophies have stressed – and are shamelessly distorting – our shortcomings. . . . They have tried to prove our democracy an empty fraud, and our nation a consistent oppressor of underprivileged people. This may seem ludicrous to Americans, but it is sufficiently important to our friends. The United States is not so strong, the final triumph of the democratic ideal is not so inevitable that we can ignore what the world thinks of us or our record. (p. 189)
And so the United States went ahead to take small actions, hoping they would have large effects. Congress did not move to enact the legislation asked for by the Committee on Civil Rights. But Truman – four months before the presidential election of 1948, and challenged from the left in that election by Progressive party candidate Henry Wallace – issued an executive order asking that the armed forces, segregated in World War II, institute policies of racial equality “as rapidly as possible.” The order may have been prompted not only by the election but by the need to maintain black morale in the armed forces, as the possibility of war grew. It took over a decade to complete the desegregation in the military. (p. 190)
Truman could have issued executive orders in other areas, but did not. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, plus the laws passed in the late 1860s and early 1870s gave the President enough authority to wipe out racial discrimination. The Constitution demanded that the President execute the laws, but no President had used that power. Neither did Truman. (p. 190)
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court was taking steps—ninety years after the Constitution had been amended to establish racial equality – to move toward that end. During the war it ruled that the “white primary” used to exclude blacks from voting in the Democratic party primaries – which in the South were really elections – was unconstitutional. (p/190)
In 1954, the Court finally struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine that it had defended since the 1890s. The NAACP brought a series of cases before the Court to challenge segregation in the public schools, and now in Brown v. Board of Education the Court said the separation of schoolchildren “generates a feeling if inferiority . . . that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” In the field of public education, it said, “the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” The Court did not insist on immediate change” a year later it said that segregated facilities should be integrated “with all deliberate speed.” By 1965, ten years after the “all deliberate speed” guideline, more than 75 percent of the school districts in the South remain segregated. (p. 190-91)
Still, it was a dramatic decision – and the message went around the world in 1954 that the American government had outlawed segregation. In the United States too, for those not thinking about the customary gap between word and fact, it was an exhilarating sign of change. (p. 191)
PART 2 TEACHINGS for movement-building activists –
- A nation’s actual social, cultural, and economic practices often fall far short of its espoused values. In the context of this discussion, America maintained racial segregation practices while simultaneously denouncing racial inequality.
- Relentless pressure from underprivileged minority groups can create a discomforting and embarrassing national public image, undermining the government’s political and moral power and influence at home and abroad.
- Depending on its mandate, government’s appointment of an independent commission to investigate a social problem can be a beneficial first step in addressing social injustice. Government legislative action is one thing. Executive enactment in a timely manner, followed by robust enforcement quite another. Governments do what the public inspects, not what it expects. Therefore, public vigilance and pressure must be relentless. In the words of the fictitious Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, TV’s UK Prime Minister: “You haven’t just voted for me. You voted for yourselves. You must no longer allow yourselves to feel left out from the decision-making process. You must no longer allow yourselves to assume that other people know best for you, better than what you do. You know best what you want for your children, for your elderly parents and relatives. You know best what you want from your schools and from your hospitals. You put your faith in me. Now I’m putting mine in you. This can only happen, it will only work, if you take responsibility too, if you make your voice heard.” Admittedly, easier said than done, even by those who enjoy a livable wage, the luxury of leisure time, and enough education and motivation to remain responsibly informed.
- Effective social movements use the courts to effect change. But laws alone, without adequate enforcement, may not be enough to change entrenched social norms, values and behaviour.
- Don’t overlook the symbolic value of legal gains as a motivating force and source of significant leverage.
- Can past social movements inform current campaigns? Absolutely, says Tim Gee in “Counterpower: Making Change Happen” “Counterpower’s mission is to map political movements and understand how change happens, to ‘delve into the archive of history and try to learn from movements past to understand better what makes a campaign successful.’